Soggy Delights At Mettawa Manor

This past weekend was a rainy one, but Judy and I weren’t going to let that deter us from going to a garden tour of Mettawa Manor, organized especially for members of Lurie Garden.

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Approaching the house at Mettawa Manor, which was built in 1927 as a wedding present for a young bride.

Mettawa Manor is the home of Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra, documentary filmmakers with long and distinguished careers in the television industry. You may have heard Bill Kurtis as the announcer on the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Donna LaPietra is also Board Chair and a founding member of the Millennium Park Foundation (Lurie Garden is a part of Millennium Park).


Blue Irises were still in flower along the drive to the house. The light was pretty terrible, but what can you do?

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I liked this fountain in the front courtyard.

Many of the documentaries made by Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra examined aspects of nature and the environment. Their environmental commitment has deeply informed how they developed the land around their home.

Bill Kurtis compares the root systems of domesticated annual wheat and its wild perennial cousin.

Inside the house, we settled down with coffee and muffins and listened to the owners talk about the history of the property and what they have done with it. They were remarkably friendly and welcoming. Gradually, they have purchased surrounding land until the grounds total 65 acres, most of which is under a conservation easement that guarantees its future as open space.

Other projects close to Kurtis’s heart include a 15-acre restored  prairie. He speaks passionately about the potential of prairie grasses to combat climate change through carbon sequestration. He is working with the Land Institute to test varieties of perennial wheat, which could have enormous environmental benefits, on his property.

Bill Kurtis giving us a tour on his electric cart. Next to him is Lurie Garden Program Manager Karen Taira, attempting to keep 2 people dry with a single umbrella.

After we learned about Mettawa Manor and got acquainted, Bill Kurtis took us in shifts for tours of the grounds. He seemed to take genuine pleasure in showing people around and talking about plants in that resonant news anchor voice. The vehicle used was a sort of elongated electric golf cart. All the passengers held umbrellas to ward off the continuing rain.

Those not touring the grounds were shown around the house by Donna LaPietra, who was full of amusing and fascinating stories.

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Here’s the edge of the prairie planting. I would have loved to walk through it but the wet was excessive.

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We passed an appealing herb garden.

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These small hills were inspired by the Cahokia Mounds in southern Illinois (the remains of an indigenous Mississippi Valley civilization). They offer an elevated view of the surrounding grounds.

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A yellow garden, featuring Yarrow and a golden Smokebush.

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A bronze garden.


Sometimes on a garden tour like this you get the feeling that the owners are merely checkbook gardeners. This is not the case at Mettawa Manor, where Bill Kurtis can name the species of just about every tree. They do have a full-time gardener, though, and as many as three seasonal staff. Given the size and numerous features of the property, that doesn’t sound like much.


Other features here include two ponds (home to some of the biggest frogs and crayfish I have ever seen) and an oak-hickory forest from which buckthorn and other invasives have been painstakingly removed. There’s also an orchard meadow I would love to see in springtime.

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Closer to the house there is a walled English garden featuring clipped boxwood, roses, and large mixed borders.

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I was struck by all the Climbing Hydrangea, which I always thought was difficult to grow in this area.

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A small patio carpeted with fragrant thyme.

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Another shady patio, closer to the house.

Judy and I are grateful to the staff at Lurie Garden for organizing this event, which was delightful despite the rain. We even got to take home some of honey from Bill’s beehives.

If you were a member of the Lurie Garden, you too would have been invited to this special tour, along with other events throughout the year. Come on now, if you work in the Loop and visit the Lurie, you know you should be a member. Just follow this link to make it happen. 

Mettawa Garden will also be open to the public on July 22 of this year, as part of the Garden Conservancy open days. Click this link for tickets and more information. Judy and I definitely intend to go back, to see what might be blooming in mid-summer.

45 Comments on “Soggy Delights At Mettawa Manor”

  1. What a marvelous, if soggy, day you had! I was lucky enough to be there some years ago as part of a painting class organized through the Botanic Garden. I grew up listening to that wonderful voice giving the news, of course. What a delight to be driving in to the estate that afternoon and find the owner of that voice up to his hips in a pond he was busy cleaning. Later he walked around, commenting kindly on each person’s painting. It was a wonderful afternoon I’ll never forget. You’ve brought it all back to me!

  2. That mound is interesting. I saw something similar in a park in western San Jose, but I doubt that it was inspired by anything. It was probably a pile of soil excavated from the Mineta Freeway. The mound in your picture would not impress me any more, except for its origin.

  3. What a gorgeous estate. It rivals any garden I’ve seen in the UK (which I’ll bet they’ve visited often!).

    One thing puzzled me given your note about their careful removal of invasives. You showed a picture of a swath of yellow Iris -was it Iris pseudacorus? That species is an awful thug. Beautiful, but invasive.

  4. How nice to have a personal motorized tour of such a large garden. I too was wondering about that yellow iris. It is beautiful but scary. I love the idea of a big indian mound where you can look out over a large part of the garden. The herb garden is giving me visions.

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